Pulaski County panel favors shift to voting-center system

Diane Taylor reads a ballot at Dunbar Community Center in December as she casts her vote in Little Rock’s mayoral runoff.

Pulaski County commissioners are pursuing a move to a voting-center system, which would allow people to cast ballots at any election location.

The Arkansas secretary of state's office promised to give the county approximately $1.5 million toward the cost of new voting machines. This amount would allow the Election Commission to replace existing equipment. But the commissioners hope the Pulaski County Quorum Court allots an extra $1,563,727, which would cover the machines and tablets needed to convert to a voting center model, Director of Elections Bryan Poe said.

Using voting centers would mean that people would go to poll workers and check in on tablets. The tablets would print out bar codes that include the information that the people will need on their ballots, Poe said.

Voters would then feed the bar code into the voting machines and cast their ballots on the screens. Poe said the machines print out the votes, so people can check to be sure they logged their choices correctly, and then they would feed their ballots into a scanner that keeps track of the votes.

Currently on Election Day, county voters have to use paper ballots. Because the workers have to print out specific candidates for different precincts, people have to go to their assigned voting location to receive the correct ballot.

Poe said this becomes problematic because people often go to the wrong location, where they can't vote. He worries that these people become discouraged and don't go to the correct location.

The machines that the county has now are all at least 10 years old, which is the end of their recommended life span, Poe said.

"Our voting equipment is obsolete. It falls apart, it breaks," said Election Commission Chairman Pat Hays.

The current equipment is difficult to set up. People have accidentally knocked them over. Poe said the machines are 1980s technology that is not useful in 2019.

"There's just not enough time in the day for us to fix them all," Poe said.

One woman broke her nose trying to set one up.

"What it comes down to is just from the get-go it wasn't a great design. But it's what we had, so it's what we used," Poe said about the machines.

Poe approached Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde on April 17 about backing new machines, but he said Hyde told him there was not any money to devote to the project.

"Basically he told us the county's financial situation. There's no money to be gotten -- that's what it boils down to," Poe said.

Hyde did not respond to requests for an interview.

"Judge Hyde didn't say no to the voting centers. He wants to see the Election Commission's plan. He wants to ensure access to voting centers in Pulaski County, especially for our elderly citizens, citizens with disabilities and citizens with limited transportation. He is still waiting on the plan," said Cozetta Jones, the county communications director, in an email.

On May 14, the three-member Election Commission, which oversees county voting, decided to approach the Quorum Court.

"If there's no money, there's no money, but we can at least let them know where they are and what our plans are," Poe said.

The commissioners plan to have a proposed ordinance prepared and a justice of the peace to sponsor the proposed ordinance that includes a request to present the idea to the Quorum Court agenda committee on June 11.

The agenda committee would then decide whether to pass the proposal on to the full Quorum Court.

Circuit/County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth said she is in support of it.

"I support the voting centers because it's going to make it easier for voters," Hollingsworth said.

If the court does not back the centers, Hollingsworth has offered to contribute money from her budget to put toward buying some equipment.

Throughout the state, many counties use voting centers, including Washington and Saline Counties.

Washington County made the switch in 2015, Elections Coordinator Jennifer Price said. Saline County opened two centers in 2016 and converted its entire system to voting centers last year, Registrar Lydia Brown said.

They both said the voting centers have improved people's experiences on Election Day.

"For commuters, it's definitely a wonderful thing," Price said.

She noted that people who work outside of the county they live in might be able to vote easier if they can stop somewhere on their way.

The centers are also helpful for college students, Price said. Students typically change addresses frequently, so it's helpful that they aren't stuck voting at a location close to where they used to live.

"So, it's really a matter of convenience to the voters in regards to where they do vote on election day," Price said.

Metro on 05/27/2019

CORRECTION: The Pulaski County Election Commission will request $1,563,727 from the Pulaski County Quorum Court. An earlier version of this article misstated the amount.